Today, we welcome back author and psychotherapist, Dr. Debra Holland. Dr. Debra has some tips for getting through the holidays when you’ve experienced a loss. As always, her words bring comfort and hope to those for whom the holidays are, and remain, painful. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator
Holidays are a time of family coming together—of warmth, love, and making lifelong memories. The holiday season is also when you can connect to your past. It’s almost impossible to have Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukah without thinking of those who are no longer with you.
Holidays can bring up sadness and grief for loved ones who passed on–perhaps many years ago. You can miss them and yearn for their presence, perhaps more than at any other time of the year. Your memories of prior joyful celebrations might feel bittersweet. Or, your memories of departed loved ones may be warm and cherished. Celebrating traditions passed on from family members connects you with them.
The holidays can be hardest if your grief is raw. The bereaved often struggle just to survive from day to day, and the thought of preparing for a holiday can be overwhelming and painful. You might dread the coming holiday and perhaps wish you could avoid it altogether. The day itself might have a pall of sadness hanging over the festivities.
Conversely, the actual holiday might not be as bad as you think. The sadness and dread building up to the day can be far worse than the reality. Although you can feel the loss and miss the deceased, you can also have times of deep thankfulness for your blessings and gratitude for all the loved ones you have present. You can get caught up in the excitement of children celebrating, playing, and opening up presents. You can exchange stories and memories, causing laughter and tears. You feel a closer connection with your family.
To Change Traditions or to Keep Them
After the death of a loved one, carrying on with a traditional celebration might seem too painful and difficult. Sometimes families decide to completely forgo a celebration—for example, they take a cruise to get away. Or they stay home instead of going to grandma’s house like they always have.
Whether you stay home or you go away, you won’t escape the memories or the grief, so absolute avoidance of pain is futile. What’s important to consider is what’s best for everyone who’s grieving, especially the children. The emotional needs of children sometimes become lost in a family’s grief, and they need their holiday celebrations to continue, even if they are modified.
Have a family conference where you discuss how everyone feels, what people can handle when it comes to the workload of a holiday, what traditions are particularly dear to each person, and what new ones the family might implement. Pare down the chaos of the season to what’s meaningful and manageable.
Tips for Weathering the Holidays
- Share how you’re feeling with trusted loved ones, especially the way your grief has changed or deepened due to the holiday.
- Reduce your stress. This isn’t the year to worry about a perfect celebration. Only do what you feel is necessary.
- Ask for help. Others will be happy to step forward to lend a hand. Let others know specifically what you need. Don’t say, “Can you bring something for dinner?” Do say, “Can you bring dessert for 10 people?”
- Find a way to memorialize your loved one. Set out a special candle. Hang their stocking with the others and have everyone write a letter to the deceased. You can read them together on Christmas morning. Make an ornament with their picture on it or buy one that represents them in some way. Include the deceased in a family prayer.
- Don’t let others direct how you should spend the holidays. Just because someone thinks it would be best for you to go away for the week, doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
- Be of service to others. Helping others is a way to give new meaning to the holiday and help you feel better. Prepare and serve food at a homeless shelter or organize a gift drive for some needy families and deliver the presents yourself.
- Realize that you might feel overwhelmed and exhausted, both from your reactions to the loss and from the stress and hectic pace of the holiday. As much as possible, get to bed early and take naps.
- You don’t have to pretend to be happy. If you think your sadness might be a problem for others, have a little talk with them beforehand about how you and they will handle your feelings.
- Spend time with people who are supportive and caring. By now, you know who among your friends and family is supportive and who’s not. Gravitate to the understanding ones and avoid the others.
During the holidays, you can’t help but think about and miss your loved one. However, try as much as possible not to dwell on your pain. Imagine your loved one being present in spirit. Instead of his or her absence, focus on the presence of the other family members. Your loss helps remind you of how precious time is with your family. Appreciate and love each one of them.
Debra Holland, Ph.d
Dr. Debra Holland is the New York Times best selling author of The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, which is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other bookstores.
Photo: Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography, Boise, ID